by Nancy DeWitt
Our 1917 Cleveland motorcycle, pictured at right with docent Mark Cosson aboard, has inspired us to try tracing the history of motorcycles in Alaska. We've only gathered a few pieces of information so far, but what we've found is interesting.
In April of 1909, more than four years before Bobby Sheldon would complete the first automobile journey between Fairbanks and Valdez, two men attempted the first motorized trip over the trail. With a sled in tow, S.M. Wheeler & W. L. Le Sage started out from Valdez on a 3.5-hp machine. "The plan worked like a charm for the first few miles... Then we began to encounter heavy snow and a blinding storm." They had to freight the motorcycle over the summit but were able to ride it until hitting more deep snow near Pollard's. There, a strap on the engine broke, so they freighted the motorcycle the rest of the way to Fairbanks. Still, Wheeler claimed a motorcycle equipped with chains could make the trip in under four days.
One motorcycle was already in Fairbanks in April 1909. "The only motorcycle working in the Tanana" belonged to the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, one of several newspapers published in the young town. A carrier named Frank Cotter used it to deliver papers to other carriers in the Goldstream Valley. "It would be impossible to get a quicker or better delivery service on those creeks than is ours," bragged the News-Miner about their motorcycle delivery service.
Motorcycle accidents also made the news in 1909, including one involving an Indian motorcycle in Valdez. In Fairbanks, rider Ray Erchinger was hospitalized after "the front wheel got mad and started to run away. The afterpart of the machine didn't like it so stopped right there and Ray hit out for Sawyer's on an air line at an angle of umpty-three degrees." He might have been riding the used 3.5-hp M&M motorcycle that had been advertised in the newspaper one week prior, or possibly an Indian purchased from Smith's Gun Store.
After riding from Chitina to Fairbanks in April 1914, Joe Schultz's 7-hp Harley-Davidson was billed as the "first power machine to make the trail in winter." Schultz equipped his bike with a runner to fit in one sled track, while his wheels ran in another. As seen at left, it wouldn't be the last time an Alaskan would attach skis to a motorcycle.
Probably the most epic motorcycle ride made in Alaska was that by Clyde "Slim" Williams and John Logan. In 1939, Slim, John and Slim's dog, Blizzard, set out to pioneer a route through Alaska and Canada for the future Alaska Highway. We have video clips from their adventure playing in the museum, and I guarantee it will make your kidneys hurt watching them bounce over the tussocks. At right, Slim is walking his motorcycle across some trees he just chopped down by hand.
If you know of other Alaska motorcycle tales from the early 20th Century, let us know!